As we rode out of Mexico into Belize I was surprised to find myself teary…we had so loved our time in Mexico and the kinship we’d built with its people. The experience we’d had with the earthquake and seeing its devastation made me feel guilty for not staying to help in some way…what I did not yet know at that moment, was what a profound impact Guatemala would have on me.
We whizzed through Belize mainland in a day, as we’d already visited its island paradise and our hangovers from that party were still lingering. My main impression of Belize was of it being a very religious country and the many beautiful Brahman cattle and ranches. Billboards saying: “In God we trust” were prominent and we were surprised to see this printed even on the loo paper!
Border crossings are an anxious time for us and Guatemala was no exception. However, as we rode across the bridge into the country we were greeted by officials extending their arms out wide, smiling and greeting us with “Welcome to Guatemala!” On the Belize side of the border I had wanted to pop into the loo quickly, but a stern ‘loo-lady’ blocked me, frowning, demanding rudely that I pay. As we had no peso left by this stage, I was forced to retreat, as she had no mercy for my plight. In Guatemala there were no public banós (toilets), but the officials allowed me to use their private facilities with a smile. This made me think about how as individuals we can have such an impact on others, through simple acts of random kindness.
Our entry into Guatemala was processed quickly and we were pleasantly surprised at both the efficiency and friendliness. I asked why we did not have a stamp in our passports and was told “no es necesario” (it’s not necessary). Our crossing at the border appeared quick and painless, but later I will tell you how it all went so horribly wrong…
Our first stop was Tikal, the ruins of an ancient Maya city. As we left the jungle the following day, we came across a young couple pushing their broken down motorcycle in the heat. We stopped to help them without a second thought and there have been so many moments when I’ve reflected back on that random act of kindness, wondering if in some spiritual sense we had “paid it forward” for the many many many random acts of kindness we would subsequently experience in Guatemala?
Riding to Guatemala City was one of the worst experiences for me, due to the dangerous conditions of the road and the extent of the traffic. Mud, pot holes, sheer cliffs, steep inclines, trucks barreling along, steep camber, buses hooting, road works, head on traffic – and all of this happening at once! As an example, a 7km mountain pass took us just over an hour, due to the demanding riding conditions. Paul loved every minute, however I found the experience daunting, exhausting and simply terrifying! After many exhausting hours of riding, we limped into the city and straight into late afternoon rush hour traffic.
Chicken buses were hooting loudly and trucks jostling across lanes, it was still more of the terrifying riding. A fellow motorcyclist waved to us in the traffic then pulled over, beckoning we do the same. As we got off our bikes he greeted us with a wide smile, saying: “Welcome to my country! How can I help you?” Ricardo was our first Guatemalan ‘angel’ and there turned out to be many…
To this day we do not know why we chose to overnight in Guatemala City, (we always avoid major cities) but it was a blessing in disguise in so many ways. Ricardo guided us along a shortcut to our hotel, but on arrival he recommended we not stay there, as it was not in a safe part of town and the security was not as advertised. He quickly got on his phone and arranged an alternate hotel and guided us there. As we enjoyed a drink with him later he asked about our plans. He gently advised us to make a few changes, as we had chosen locations and roads known by locals as being dangerous. He gave us his contact details and made us promise to call him if we ever needed anything else. We soon discovered that Ricardo’s random act of kindness was not a once-off experience. There were so many moments where complete strangers stopped to ask if we needed help – a pizza delivery man stopped in the traffic asking if we were lost, a lady offered us her umbrella when it started to rain (I kid you not!) and later we were gifted many more acts of kindness in a very dire hour of need.
After a wonderful time exploring this beautiful country, we set off at 5am for our border crossing into El Salvador. We had been ‘warned’ about fixers at the border, so in advance we had agreed not to get conned into paying for their help. A few hundred metres from the border Paul stopped at a bank to exchange currency and I was waiting for him at the side of the road. A man on a motorcycle stopped to “say hello” and as this was nothing new, I exchanged friendly banter. It turns out he was a ‘fixer’ and Paul was furious that I’d inadvertently “engaged his services” by simply returning his greeting! I told him we did not need his help, but these guys are like super glue…you simply cannot get rid of them! He followed us all the way to the border post, lingering as we tried the immigration process unassisted. I soon knew something was wrong when the official asked where we had entered Guatamala, kept paging and paging and paging through my passport, going to see another official and eventually asking to see Paul’s passport…
Long story short, we were very politely told that there is “un pequeńo problema” (a small problem)! That stamp I had asked for as we entered from Belize?…yup, it was essential and we did not have one!
Without that stamp we were illegally in the country (our bikes were not) and we were told that we needed to return to Guatemala City and get it sorted out at Immigration. The look on Paul’s face can only be described as “ashen, shocked and horrified” …the thought of riding back all that way and of facing Guatemala City once again was just too much for us to handle in that moment! This was also the moment that the ‘fixers’ REALLY pounced!
Suddenly the ‘fixers’ were on us like bees to a honey pot, offering us all sorts of help, promising secret contacts who could sort out our predicament, without us having to ride all the way back to Guatemala City. With nothing to lose, we agreed to let them show us what could be done. We were called into the back office of the immigration officials and presented with a lady “who could give us the stamp for a fee of US$400”. Each time the ‘fixer’ turned away from the lady to talk to us, she vigorously shook her head and mouthed “no!” at us, but each time he turned to face her again, she smiled sweetly back at him. Thankful for her discreet warning, we were soon riding back to Guatemala City…
We had booked hotels in El Salvador and would be incurring cancellation costs, so wanted to minimise our delay as much as possible. En route back to the city I noticed a wobble in my steering and called it out to Paul. As the roads were so shonky, I was doubting my judgement about whether it was a problem with my bike or just the road conditions. We booked into our previous hotel, stored the bikes and set off in a cab to try and sort out our immigration challenge first, then deal with assessing the bike. Trying to sort out an immigration challenge in English is daunting enough…we had the challenge of trying to do this in Spanish! By the time we had stood in a few incorrect queues and been sent from pillar to post on various floors, it turned out that we arrived an hour late at the correct immigration counter. VISA applications are only processed in the mornings, so we were told to come back the next day. Absolutely deflated, I tried to explain our predicament in Spanish, asking if there was any other way forward. A young girl in the queue saw our struggle to communicate and offered to translate, as she spoke both English and Spanish.
Soon she had explained our whole story and managed to negotiate an exception, if we were prepared to wait another hour, which we did. Our cab driver had offered to wait and Paul went out for a second time, to let him know not to wait as we would be a couple more hours. He said he would wait for us, without extra charge. The staff at Immigration ended up working after hours to process our VISA application and with many “gracias” we were soon on our way. We were astounded at the willingness of the Guatemalan officials to help us, as it entailed involving people in a few departments, not just one. We made many new friends that day and people were interested in hearing about our journey and how much we’d loved their country. Our cab driver got a handsome tip for his generosity of spirit, making our lives so much easier by waiting for more than 2 hours.
Next we called Ricardo and within 15 minutes he was at our hotel, guiding us to BMW, who he had already made arrangements with to assess my bike (it was now after 5pm). We were told the front brake rotors were damaged and that it would cost US$1000 for parts to repair. As they dismantled the wheel, they also discovered that the wheel bearings had failed. The assumption was made that the bearings had failed, in turn causing the rotors to be damaged. The problem thus became a case for warranty repairs and our delay appeared to now be a matter of days. Shattered from a long, stressful day we had dinner and went to bed early. The next morning we walked over to BMW to receive the wonderful news that on final inspection it was only the wheel bearings that needed replacing, so after paying only about US$15 for parts we were soon on our way!
Looking back, both our trips to Guatemala City were a huge blessing in disguise. Guatemala City is where we met Ricardo and his advice about our route for subsequent travel was invaluable. Earlier this week we met 2 bikers from Canada who took that particular route and unfortunately they were held up at gun point and robbed. The lady’s clothes were cut off her body with a machete and she was extremely traumatised just telling us about their terrible ordeal. Had we not returned a second time to Guatemala City where there is a BMW dealer, we may not have assessed my bike so early, and it would have eventually failed quite dramatically. We would have been stranded with serious bike problems and without a BMW dealer to be found for many countries.
Since I’ve been a young child I’ve always started and ended each day giving thanks. Noticing the things to be thankful for has always come easily. Our journey through Guatemala has been such a powerful lesson in how the simple acts of random kindness by individuals can make such an incredible impact on the lives of others… I asked Paul what word he would use to describe our experience of this in Guatemala. He said: “Inspirational!”